Nik Pew on illustrating, success and Love Thy Chopper

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Westword: What inspired you to get into tattooing?

Nik Pew: I kind of grew up around tattooing. Some of my dad's friends were getting pretty heavily tattooed in the '80s. As a youngster, I was definitely intrigued by that. I come from a family of artists, so it was kind of natural for me to gravitate toward tattooing. I was already illustrating, drawing cars and bikes and whatever else at a pretty young age. When I started seeing tattoos, those were the images that got burned in my mind and I kept drawing. When I was old enough to start thinking about getting tattooed, I already had a pretty big arsenal of tattoo designs that I had come up with or re-drawn from other pieces I had seen.

I got a job working the front at a tattoo studio when I was seventeen and I did that for a year before I started my apprenticeship. That was in '93, I started working at the tattoo studio. At that point I had already done a bunch of homemade tattoos, which was pretty frowned upon by my parents because it's obviously not the right way to do it. There was definitely some health risk. So I put that on the back burner and started working at the tattoo studio, got my foot in the door. They saw that I was pretty crafty at illustrating and being able to come up with custom designs. To this day, that's kind of my specialty -- being able to come up with something that somebody has in their head or an idea that somebody comes to me with. I'm able to illustrate from my head. I don't really like to use a whole lot of reference unless it's something specific.

Is that a hard process, finding the right balance between what a client has in mind and your own style?

Yeah, I think it is a challenge to come up with original art that people are stoked about. I see a lot of tattoo artists that only want to do one style of tattooing, which might be more fun for them as a tattooer but I try to respect the client's intention of whatever it is that they had in mind and try to stay true to it. Even though I know that maybe down the road they might be better educated about tattoos, who am I to say that's what they want or don't want? Illustrating is definitely my specialty. I'm able to draw a lot of different styles, not just one particular style. I think that's what makes me a little more well-rounded.

Have you seen a lot of change or evolution within the industry in the past twenty years?

Of course. It has changed 180 degrees from where it was, which is good as a business aspect. If you want to work hard, you can be successful nowadays. Whereas twenty years ago, you just had to work a lot harder for a lot less money. The whole game has changed. I guess I kind of came in at a time when it was in that transition, and now it has fully turned to the point where people have a lot of tattoo knowledge they're getting from TV or what their friends tell them. It's usually 90 percent bullshit. I guess everybody has to start somewhere.

As an artist, what would you say is your idea of success?

I don't know if there is a "making it." It's not like you ever break out of what you're going to be doing for the rest of your life. Tattooing is a day-by-day trade. There's no bigger picture, really. A lot of us don't have retirement, nor do we have any type of future. I go to work to make money and it continues throughout my life. It'll probably never change. I've always felt successful in the fact that I work at a great studio and I have great people that I work with. That makes it totally worth it. I still feel like I'm learning every day. Continue reading for the rest of our Q&A with Nik Pew
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Nathalia Vélez
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